What is it about hospital waiting rooms? White walls with random pictures, hard chairs with odd patterns and that strange universal waiting room scent that you can never quite identify…latex gloves, rubbing alcohol and magazines perhaps? I can’t help but think of all the ways I could decorate this lonely room, give it a little feng shui ya know? If there is any place that needs good energy it’s hospital waiting rooms. I would love to get my hands on this one…the possibilities are truly endless! I look around at all of my neighbors as I lay sprawled out on this squiggly striped bench, my leg propped with a pillow as per usual, playing the waiting game like the rest.
Scanning the room I notice all of the other broken legs and bandaged extremities carefully propped on metal stools or swaddled in ace rap…and it makes me smile. I smile not because other people are in pain, no, that is my least favorite thing in life. I smile at the commonality shared between me and all of these strangers and the insanity I am learning that is breaking your leg. And it is insane.
Has something ever been so insane or crazy to you that you just can’t help but laugh? Like when you are in grade school and your friend slips you a silly note while your teacher is busy lecturing on plate tectonics…just knowing you can’t bust out in giggles makes you need to laugh even more. Before you know it, you need to laugh about plate tectonics too. Continents sliding under continents, it’s a pretty heavy thought, eh? That’s exactly how I have been feeling these days as my mind and body battle through this adventure. In my thirteen years of competitive running and a childhood of sports and acrobatics, I have never before experienced pain deep down to the bone the way I have by breaking my leg. I have also never broken a bone before.
I do believe a life of athletics, especially in distance running, has prepared me as best as possible to get through this. Not to mention we mile mavericks have a special capacity for pain, we push through it every single practice or run, day after day, year after year. It is a pain that makes sense to us. The faster and further we train, the more comfortable we are flirting with discomfort. It is in our control.
But this! A Broken femur?! I stare at the galaxy of speckles on the white painted wall in front of me as a nearby mom chases her children for the fourth time. Maybe ages three and four with big bright brown eyes, the children stare inquisitively at the girl with a huge neon pink cast decorated in blue stripes. My leg looks more like a bubble gum candy-cane than anything else, so I understand their curiosity. I smile and wave at them again as she herds her little people back to their seats, clinging to her like monkeys. And we all keep waiting.
Even if you are happy as ever, which I was before breaking my leg, life is still a pretty serious endeavor. It’s easy to get caught up in the race or game. Finding the humor in crazy has brought me down to Earth through many hectic and ridiculous moments, like this one…I have truly never sat so much in my life. I would safely estimate I spend 25% of my time engaging in what I call the “waiting room process.” You will usually find me posted up with my computer to write or work, a bottle of water and granola, of course, nearby. Oh, and don’t forget the two pillows I have at all times for propping and elevation, which is critical for the hours of waiting.
You see, this isn’t like when you are a kid and you have your parents to cart you around in a timely fashion to the doctor’s office. It wasn’t you spending the hours at a time (not an exaggeration) on hold or being transferred around with your insurance company just to set up an appointment to deal with the potentially serious swelling going on under your cast. Swelling so tight and painful that every slight move just squeezes at your broken bone. Yes Doc, I agree, the burning foot and icy numbness in my knee is a good indicator that I should come in.
And once I am there, I usually have to set up shop for hours on end. This is California we are talking about, so I can typically double the time estimated for my ride to come retrieve me. Remember, mommy and daddy aren’t here so there isn’t always a ride to be found and finding them isn’t always easy. Because this is the real world now and all of the people I know and love have real life jobs during regular business hours. Weird?
Before that process though comes the first 25% of time…the “getting to the doctor” process, which we have learned to be the most challenging. After phone calls, text messages and negotiation (i.e. Thanks Walker, Chic-Fil-A is on me tonight) my ride is ready to transport me. I do always find a ride because I am blessed to be surrounded by some really exceptional people.
The first step is preparation, so let the process begin…
Positioned comfortably on my new bedroom-office-couch, my retriever approaches the casted leg with delicacy. My boyfriend, Noah, has gotten extremely comfortable with this, but even he gets nervous at times. My normally fast-paced life has been reduced to a distant memory.
Despite this pain that shoots down my leg every time I slowly rise from each waiting room chair, I think back to how thankful I was when the doctor first told me I fractured my femur. “Looks like a fracture straight up your femur with no displacement, never seen anything like it.” Where I quickly responded through choked tears, “Wait! It’s not my femoral condyle?” I can tell he is puzzled by the way he cocks his head at me, frowning with his eyebrows. “Um no…it is still a very serious break, you will be in a long cast for two months and it may require surgery.”
What he didn’t know is that I was screaming inside my soul with happiness because the thirty long minutes before he came through that boring door was the second lowest time of my life. Imagine having the most optimistic man in medicine as your father…not only does my dad truly care about his patients, but he considers and researches all roads to recovery with only one outcome, full recovery. He believes it and stands by it and loves to inspire others to find their resilience and overcome adversity, and they do. Now imagine this guy coaching you through a self-exam over the phone en route to urgent care just after the accident happened…
“Well it sounds like you could have fractured your femur, or possibly ruptured your quadriceps…that’s a rough one, and let’s not talk about the femoral condyle just yet, baby steps”. Femoral condyle? The boys chattered on about surfing as we passed through San Clemente…my cell phone pressed to my face, watching the palm trees pass by from the back seat. We thought the scenic route might be more comforting, and it actually was. I tried to soak in the perfect view because I knew we had a long night ahead of us.
I did take two years of anatomy and physiology in college, but maybe I missed the part on femoral condyles…although it was more likely I was daydreaming about an upcoming race. Because I don’t let up even if he keeps avoiding it, he finds his best way to break the news softly. “Well Paige, let me tell you a story…” If my dad had to resort to an inspirational story, I knew it wasn’t good. As it turns out, the femoral condyle is the weight-bearing portion of the distal femur, and preserving an intact articular surface is not only critical for success in impact sports but for a healthy knee joint long term. After swallowing the lump in my throat and pushing the thoughts of never running again out the window, I tried to muster whatever positivity and good energy I could to keep close by for the coming diagnosis. I was quickly smacked in the face by a perky x-ray tech proclaiming, “Concrete 1, Paige 0!”
Ha, ha…was I supposed to laugh? Can she even tell me this? I mean, I knew it was bad by the way I was screaming at Noah when he came to help after the fall, and because I literally could not move it without going dizzy. “So it’s broken?” I prodded, looking up at her from my hospital bed (they had to wheel me in here). She looked down at me with sympathetic eyes, “Oh honey I’m sorry, I have never seen anything like this though! You will definitely be seeing me again.” “Awesome,” I reply, “It’s okay, I figured it was broken, I know my body. I am a distance runner…” Now she has tears in her eyes and I feel my emotions welling up inside me, but not at risk of overflowing just yet. It’s a gift and a curse, but I always like to have an answer, an explanation to free my wandering thoughts. “Is it my femoral condyle?” Looking at me with one sad last look, and coughing under her breath, “Yes, yes I think it is. I am so so sorry.”
Life froze in that moment.
I hate the feeling of defeat, and I have really only felt it a few times in life. So many thoughts swirled through my head. For starters, I was supposed to be running with and getting to know my new team, a cross-country and track club based out of San Diego sponsored by New Balance. Instead, I spent that morning with a chipper x-ray technician, who smiled as she passed me off to an assistant and topped the whole moment off with, “Remember, the concrete always wins!” And so I waited to wake up from this bad dream, ready to lace up and hit the door.
Nope. It was real and I was definitely at that overflowing part by then. I felt like I was getting wheeled to my funeral, every person, beeping machine and door we passed was all a blur until we reached my room. The boys could see the sadness in my eyes. I hate to admit it, but I had totally thrown in the white flag. Hearing the sadness in my dad’s voice is what got me the most. It reminded me of the time I was a little girl and my parents thought I had diabetes. It turned out the doctors were wrong, which was a blessing. On the bright side, I scored my sisters tropical Barbie beach house! She didn’t understand why everyone was so sad, but just knew her sister’s life had changed. I didn’t understand either.
But this I understood quite clearly and I wished a palm tree plastic doll extravaganza could take away the pain. There were so many long quiet pauses on the phone when I broke the news to my dad. The defeat in his voice cut us all deep. Even the boys in all of their six foot, three inch manliness looked the saddest I had ever really seen them, and it was for me. We listened to him on speaker phone, disbelief floating in the awkward air. Noah rubbed my hand and Walker stood next to him somberly. They know that running means just as much to me as surfing does to them. I couldn’t believe any of this, and this was definitely one of those undeniably “too serious to laugh moments” that we all have experienced. Until that is, the doctor came in and kicked off the party with his wonderful news…I had a non-displaced fracture of my distal femur (anatomic position), not a shattered femoral condyle!
I felt like I was given another chance. Have you ever had a moment like that? Just so utterly grateful to be given a new destiny. Your insides want to burst and you could practically kiss the ground beneath your feet…I would have if I could! Smiling through my tears I took a deep breath and met her soft gentle eyes, and thanked my guardian angel. Somewhere between my heart and her far away sanctuary, my mom’s soothing voice reassures me as it always did.
“You’re okay my girl, I will never let anything happen to you.” While she is not physically here anymore, her warmth wrapped around me like a soft blanket. I could picture her snuggled up with me on this hospital bed at that very moment, rubbing my hair with her soft hands like she would at the Cancer Treatment Center just two years back. She was a mom until the day she died. Facing the hardest thing a person can ever face, she nurtured her five children like any loving mother would do. Holding us in her fragile lap is what brought her the most joy and being strong for us was just innate to her.
And while you could see the fear in her eyes through each worsening prognosis, she always put on her best face and attitude. We were all impressed with the humor and quick wit she brought to every emotionally daunting test result. Her ability to make us all bust up laughing during the little moments or long nights was the biggest act of bravery I had ever seen in such a small person. She had an uncanny ability to make the craziest moments seem so normal. How could you not return her strength?
We all had our moments, of course, but when one sibling would break, the rest of us would be right there to pick them up. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed among people. The truth is, we kids could not deny the enormous and surprising amount of strength that would sneak up to shield us during the toughest of times. It is still a beautiful mystery where exactly this strength came from, a mystery I am forever grateful for. I just cannot argue though the one simple answer that comes to my mind…
Family is a special thing, and it is available to all of us.
And it is Thanksgiving, so I would like to give thanks to some special people in my life.
Thank you Mom for making me understand what it means to be brave and making me appreciate how lucky I am to be alive. Thank you for teaching me what real pain feels like, so I can laugh through the insanity of this broken leg. Thank you dad, for always being strong for our family and coaching me through this new journey. Thank you to my amazing siblings, you are the best gift I have ever had and thank you to our parents for giving us this gift. Thank you to Margaret and Ed, my boyfriend’s parents, for welcoming me whole heartedly into your lives and guiding me through anything from broken cars to broken femurs. I am continually grateful for your love and so happy our families intersected because it brought Mimi, Papa, Bob, Barbara, Thoum, Anne, Brian, and the kids into my life too! Thank you to my mentor Mike at the University of Redlands who told me when I returned to California after losing her, “nothing you go through will ever be this hard”…you were right. Thank you to my big Irish family back East and all of my New Hampshire friends. Thank you to my West Coast surrogate mom, Annie Morency for being there for me since day one. Thank you to Coach Steve Scott and his lovely wife Jojo for making me feel so at home in this new place and of course Coach Wes Williams too! Thank you to my family here in San Diego, my family at California State University, San Marcos, my family at the University of Redlands, my family at Keene State College and of course my college coach Pete for believing I will be a great runner again.
And lastly, a HUGE thank you to my incredible boyfriend Noah, his likeminded brother Walker, and my little brother John. I couldn’t get through any of this without your constant help. Thank you for jumping at my every little request and sacrificing the SoCal surf to play Trouble or Go Fish with me on the sofa. You keep me sane. These are the guys that are there during that other 50% of the time. A 50% that includes all of the dirty work I won’t get into here. A 50% of time where I surrender control and have endless amounts of time to get lost in the trails of my mind, day after day. A 50% of time that is…”the waiting process.”
Do not only define yourself by your passions or work because sometimes we are simply forced to change the pace and take a new turn. Don’t be afraid to laugh at this mystery we call life and always remember…whatever your journey and struggles may be, try not to miss the magic and fun along the way. It is everywhere.
Just look around…
Happy reading, happy living, and of course…happy running!